Kara Swisher

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Moon Shot: Earthbound Investor Milner Talks About Origins of the Universe at SXSW

yuri

There were, of course, the questions on his famously huge Facebook investment many years ago, and why he’s put money in Y Combinator to spur startup innovation.

But it’s clear from his mainstage interview at the SXSW interactive festival in Austin this morning that high-profile Russian investor Yuri Milner of DST Global has been striving to think much bigger thoughts of late.

While he’s gotten a lot of attention for his big bets in the social networking site, as well as with Twitter, Spotify, Airbnb and many others, he’s slowed his investing in the U.S. considerably to focus more on what he and many others in Silicon Valley are calling “moon shot” ideas.

“Somehow, we have lost interest in big ideas,” said Milner, in an onstage interview with Vanity Fair contributing editor Bethany McLean about shifting away from thinking — which he has funded, in part — that has gotten more short-term and pragmatic. “I think we still have a destiny as human beings.”

That has included starting up his Fundamental Physics Prize, which has now become the priciest academic award, last year. And, more recently — with Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and Genentech mogul and Apple Chairman Art Levinson, among others — the launch of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation.

As Mike Isaac wrote when that initiative was announced less than a month ago:

“The first round of prize recipients includes 11 scientists from a range of research disciplines, including studies in genetics, cancer research and neural behavior. Each of the 11 prize winners will receive a $3 million award for their work, and Brin, Zuckerberg, Milner and the rest of the sponsors have agreed to a five-year commitment to awarding prizes.”

Milner, who was a physicist in his early career, said onstage that he has been disheartened to see that not enough younger people choose to go into fundamental science anymore. Thus he is aming to make it more attractive via his prizes.

“We don’t have enough heroes who are admired by a large portion of the population due to their scientific achievements,” he said, noting that it will require rewarding individuals in a “disproportionate manner.”

Still, in the Q&A session, the crowd in the Austin Convention Center wanted to know mostly about more earthbound questions, such as what tech company would last 100 years, as IBM has.

According to Milner: Google, Facebook and Wikipedia, due to network effects.

Another attendee wanted to know what he thought it takes to be an entrepreneur these days.

“It’s almost a heroic effort, and kind of goes against set ways of doing things,” answered Milner.

Then someone wanted to know how the political arena could be similarly transformed.

That, I don’t know,” said Milner.

Moon shot, indeed.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald